The Field Shower

Twenty years ago on a rainy May morning I lined up for a road race at the edge of the Berkshire Mountains.

Plot spoiler: I had no idea what I was doing.

Temperatures might, thanks to my generous memory, have hovered in the low 50s, but my clothing wasn’t up to the task. After absorbing all the water my clothing could possibly hold, I went hypothermic. I began shaking almost uncontrollably on the downhills and lost contact with the bunch on a relatively minor climb. I realized I was not, under any circumstances, going to finish the race.

For reasons I can’t explain, there were nearly a dozen non-neutral follow cars behind my race. When I pulled over, so did one of the cars. The event was as inexplicable as I was lucky. She drove me back to the start as I shivered and dripped on her car’s leather interior.

I grabbed my clothes and went inside the bike shop that sponsored the race. Inside a dressing room, my kit went shplorp on the floor. And I looked at myself. Aside from how wet I was, I realized I was covered in road grime. What to do? When I had lived in the South, I just drove home wet, muddy or whatever. In my cycling clothing. I had never before been both wet and cold following a race and I knew I needed to get dry STAT.

I ended up using my T-shirt to wipe off and then wore my sweater with no shirt. I vowed never to arrive at a race so unprepared again.

I began carrying a towel, and later added a washcloth when I rendered the towel unusable following a muddy mountain bike race. My learning curve was steep.

A year later I was at a race in Pennsylvania when a teammate scandalized a neighborhood by standing a few yards from a street corner—stark naked—and slathered his body with a Sea Breeze-soaked wash cloth. I realized he was onto something as far as getting clean, though I also thought that there might be room for a bit more discretion.

In addition to the towel, I began carrying water. Then I upgraded from a bath towel to a bath sheet. In 1996 I learned about the Sport Kilt. With all the features of a kilt and the added convenience of Velcro, I was sold. In seeking to be discreet, I noticed that passersby looked less if it didn’t look like you were wrapped in bathroom attire.

I added plain deodorant (no antiperspirant) in an effort to make post-ride refueling more pleasant for anyone in my proximity and as I had learned, that proximity was directly proportional to how hard the ride or race was.

The last and best trick I picked up on was given to me by a new mom. She turned me on to zip-locked bags of baby wipes. I added a little extra water to make them extra-moist. I’ve found nothing else as adept at removing embrocation.

I quickly learned that a regimen of a gallon of water on the legs to wash away sweat, grime or mud followed by baby wipes, a quick towel-off, then deodorant would allow me to dress, have a meal and drive home without feeling like Bill Murray after he got slimed in Ghostbusters. As nothing short of a proper shower could do anything for my hair, a baseball cap became as indispensable a part of my gear bag as that Sport Kilt.

For a while I traveled with sandals that made changing easy, but I could never get used to driving in them. Eventually, the sandals went in the trash and I went back to my high-school standby: slip-on Vans.

Naturally, no learning curve is ever complete. Any time I think there’s a chance conditions will be anything short of stellar, I bring along a plastic laundry bag equipped with a drawstring closure. A dozen years ago a friend and I went to a race in California’s San Joaquin Valley. The roads of the race were decorated with farm-field runoff. You can guess what flavor the air carried.

We cleaned up after the race and made a stop for lunch on the way home. Half an hour later I unlocked the car to a stench that made our eyes tear. We drove up the Grapevine, crossing the 4000-foot elevation mark in February with the windows open.

Whenever I think my gear bag should be smaller I remind myself that I’m glad I can no longer recall exactly how my car smelled.

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10 comments

  1. David A

    Everyone has probably read Joe Parkin’s steps to prepare for a Belgian Kermis. He didnt go so far as to tell you what happens after the race once you get back to the garage/cafe store room/changing place that you have left your clothes bag at. Some of the guys i raced with brought their own warm water which they put in gallon anti-freeze containers, sometimes with styrofoam taped around them to keep it warm. Most of the time the folks from your changing place brought a bucket of warm water to wash up with. You would use a washandje or washmitt. everyone had a plastic container to pour the water into.You would wash face and head first,then then between legs and finally embrocation off legs. If you had someone with you they would empty dirty water out and wash your back. alot of guys would finish with Born or Agu washing lotion. A clean baselayer and socks if you were riding your bike back home, street clothes if you came by auto. You always had your bar of soap in a little soap container, a clean towel a couple washandjes and all your dirty kit in your gym/travel bag placed in the trunk of auto. And yes there was always alot of pig and cow manure on the roads…

  2. randomactsofcycling

    I can’t say I have ever had the pleasure of racing through wet rural farmlands, but I am constantly amazed at how little thought goes into what happens after the ride!
    My club have a few ‘Special’ rides through the year that necessitate a couple of hours driving to get to and from. Sometimes we hire a bus. I never want to be sitting for 2 hours after a 5 hour ride, in my sweaty, smelly kit.
    I’ve got a routine from my football days, when there was never any guarantee as to the set-up of the opposition’s changing rooms. Always a wet face washer, deodorant and clean underwear. Sometimes even a toothbrush as gels, bars and sports drinks don’t leave me with the best aftertaste. Clean, loose t-shirt and shorts with a cap. Ipod, so I can sleep in the corner and not hear the heroic stories of the last climb!

  3. Touriste-Routier

    Padraig, I never realized you were such a slow learner ;-)

    I was fortunate to have started out under the tutelage of a good club with resident pros. So my learning curve was short.

    In Belgium I always rode to/from races, so I didn’t worry about cleaning up; I just saved it for the shower at home. But we always rode to the races with backpacks full of extra clothes. However, I did witness thing similar to what David stated.

    I earned honorary Flahute points by riding to a race in the cold rain, racing in the cold rain, and riding home in the cold rain. I changed kits before the race, and after the race. When we got “home” (the dorms at the university in Gent), the bikes went immediately on the roof, and we went into the showers in full kits. Next stop was the laundry room…

    People often wonder why my race/ride bag is so large. But when I am in clean & dry in street clothes, and they are still doing chamois time, it all makes sense. I am the go to guy for baby wipes… Check out Action Wipes; they work even better than baby wipes, but they are not as bargain priced.

    I remember the sport kilts; a friend now uses a large hooded poncho designed for the same effect. It was given to him as a gift, so I have no idea who made it, but it is great for colder events. And it looks even sillier than the kilts ;-)


    1. Author
      Padraig

      David A: I wish I’d known you in 1988.

      Touriste-Routier: It’s funny, I got great guidance from teammates on so many dimensions of cycling back in the ’80s. The field shower was one of those things I was left to figure out on my own. You’d think that the guys who taught me about embrocating would have made some mention that I’ll need to get the stuff off afterward.

      I actually have a Norwegian army cloak made from utterly windproof wool. Looks kinda like what the hobbits wore in Lord of the Rings. I’ve used that to change on a few occasions following cold spring road races.

  4. David A

    @Padraig: if you had known me in 1988 we would have been slogging it out in Flanders together and riding home at dusk. LOL
    Touriste-Routier: I know what its like to ride to the Kermis in rain, race and ride home in the rain….I did that for 6 months until I went to live with a Belgian Familie near Holland. Their son raced , so I would get rides to the races with them. He was good. He would win, I would get 13th. Dirk Vankerkhove. I think his uncle won the Tour of Belgium in the 1950’s.

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  6. Wes

    I’ve been there with the stinky kit before. I went down to New Jersey from Toronto a couple of years ago for SpectaCross at the NJ State Fair. It was a super fun, muddy time (albeit WAY too hot for ‘cross!), but being held on fairgrounds I think there may have been a significant amount of err.. ‘animal byproducts’ in the soil. I drove to Ottawa to spend a couple days with a friend after the races were done. Being cooped up in the car for 6 hours, still slightly muddy, with a trunk full of smelly kit was not one of my smarter decisions. I remember getting to my friend’s place, sitting on the couch and drinking a beer, across the room from him. He had this sour look on his face and finally I asked him what was wrong. In a total Seinfeldian voice he said simply, “you stink”. If he could detect it on the other side of the room, you can guess what my car smelled like when I hauled my nasty clothes/wheels/etc out of the trunk the next day.

  7. Dan O

    Fun post and something many of us can relate to.

    My cleanup routine evolved from mountain biking and even some left over motocross tricks from the ’70s. You’ll get dirty every ride with those activities – sometimes spectacularly so….

    Bath towel – crappy worn out one – in case you wanna dump it.

    A few water bottles destined for cleaning duty. I have a few old school larger units saved for such festivities. One of those collapsable camping water containers comes in handy at times – depending on much clean up is anticipated.

    Baby wipes are the miracle of modern science. Didn’t discover these until we had a, uh – baby. The “baby” is now 11 years old and ride/races with me. The baby wipes have come full circle.

    A few plastic garbage bags. Stand on ‘em to keep feet dry while changing. Shove ultra muddy riding kit in ‘em for trip home.

    Of course – full change of clothes, etc.

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